February 17, 2018

Texas A&M Libraries Film The Research Games

Need to read The Art of War? At Texas A&M’s libraries, the odds are ever in your favor. The library’s new orientation and marketing video is a ‘tribute’ to the bestselling YA book The Hunger Games and its movie adaptation.

Last year, Texas A&M Assistant Professor and Learning and Outreach Librarian Lea Susan Engle participated in the university’s extended orientation program, known as Fish Camp, for the first time. Though the program is optional, some 65 percent of the entering class participates, or about 5500 hundred students. Engle found herself doing 21 different presentations on library services. So this year, she recruited a team to spread the load. But more presenters made maintaining continuity from session to session more of an issue. The solution was to make a video, and thus The Research Games was born.

The idea to parody The Hunger Games came while brainstorming with library specialist Chance Medlin – on a walk to the vending machines, in fact. Engle said she was telling Medlin she was frustrated, in a slump, and the two of them started kicking around movies to jump off from, such as Inception. Once The Hunger Games was mentioned, “It just flowed. I got out the big 3-foot-high chart paper, we just started throwing out ideas, and the outline was done in minutes.”

Engle and Medlin recruited public services lecturer (and former public and school librarian) Melissa Edwards because “she is a huge Hunger Games fan,” and the three edited a Google Doc to pull the project together.

The Reaping

When it came to production, “we were prepared to do it ourselves,” said Engle, “but we knew that our skill set was not up to the level that we wanted to produce for the library,” said Engle. Instead, they approached the Aggie SWAMP campus film collective, after picking the brain of a student worker who is also a SWAMP member on what motivates the filmmakers. Engle thought she’d have to twist arms to convince the students to volunteer, but it didn’t work out that way. “We went in with that insider knowledge—and library swag, they loved the Slinkies—and as soon as we said ‘Hunger Games theme, 20 people raised their hands.”

Casting the volunteer actors required more than just Slinkies. “For some reason, ‘can you film for 13 hours on a Saturday and we’re not going to pay you’ is not the most attractive offer,” laughed Engle. But they were able to find their cast by “a little diplomatic recruiting.” They wanted each library to be represented by a librarian who worked there, so they approached the people who do outreach for each. Because the goal was to “recruit as library-centered and diverse a cast as we could,” they also sent out an email to all the library student workers, their supervisors, and staff.

Several SWAMP members volunteered to act as well, including the actress who played the lead tribute, Katniss (Caroline Suffield, recent theater graduate). To fill in the remaining gaps, “there were a couple personal pleas, friends of friends. I tapped the local roller derby community that I am a part of,” said Engle. Although they weren’t paid, the library offered a well stocked green room with food, games, movies, even coloring books, to keep the actors happy.

Making the Movie

Then-graduate student Austin Hines, who has just completed Texas A&M’s visualization program, was the filmmaker ultimately selected; he agreed to do the work pro bono through his company, FutureLight Studios. Though he donated use of lighting equipment as well as sound and of course, the camera, “the majority of the library chase scenes were shot with available light to cut down on shooting time,” Hines explained.

What followed was fast and furious. The library approached SWAMP on Thursday in May, and had originally planned to start filming the following month. Instead, Hines proposed they start Monday, and filming ultimately began only one day later—after an all day, all-night marathon session creating a story board for Hines to turn into a script.

They shot the film in three consecutive 16 hour days. “The last day of filming was a whirlwind; we shot in 5 locations!” Engle told LJ. Real-world deadline pressure lent authenticity to the finale – they were filming the last scene of the movie as the library was closing. “We were running out of time and it was actually; very tense which helped. It also helped with the lighting, because they were turning off the lights,” Engle said.

“Because of the short time-frame, scripts were often only final on the nights before shoots,” Hines said. And adding to the short time frame was the difficulty of working with volunteers. “Sometimes scenes were written without knowing if we would have enough actors to fill the roles on shoot day.”

(One day when they didn’t, Engle doubled as the teacher and the student in the same scene. “It was great because my dad didn’t recognize me,” she said.)

However Hines was able to adapt to these conditions. “The whole screenwriting process was about creating a target story structure, but the details needed to be flexible enough to accommodate unexpected variables. This is one of the main reasons why we went with a flashback structure.”

Hines also did the editing, using his own version of Adobe Premiere, but it and Final Cut Pro are also available in the library for student use, aided by Bob Perez, information technology associate and Texas A&M judo coach, who works in media and reserves, and also appeared in the film.

Because so much of the labor involved in the project was donated, the biggest expense of the project has been gift cards to thank the participants, as well as food for the green room and the upcoming cast party. “We’re looking for a red carpet,” said Engle.

Goals and Goalposts

“We had a good time, we wore silly costumes, we made silly jokes, but this is really grounded in pedagogy,” said Engle. The goals of the film were to “make the library more accessible and less intimidating, combat library anxiety, change any preconceptions of libraries and librarians: we are not a repository for books, we are a place for people, ready and willing to help them succeed as Aggies.” More specific information Engle wanted to convey included how many different libraries Texas A&M has, that they have subject specialists, what their online resources are, and to come to the library’s open house.

The library is measuring the success of the film by a combination of hits (500 in the first 24 hours) and social media pickup on everything from Twitter to Facebook to Pinterest.

At press time, the video had only been shown to one session of entering freshmen, with 20 still to go. Using suspense to drive engagement, the library only showed the first nine minutes of the film at Fish Camp, then gave the students wristbands with the URL to watch the 90 second conclusion—when they get out of the woods, four hours later. But for those who can’t wait, the library did make sure it would work on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices—“if they could get a signal.”

Taking the Lesson Home

Texas A&M is far from the only library dipping a toe into the video-producing waters. The New York Public Library’s Milstein Division recently produced a mystery; BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library made a take-off on the Old Spice ads, and IFLA recently gave an award to Tsinghua University Library, Beijing, China, for Falling in Love with the Library, a series of five short videos featuring two undergraduates who meet in the library. The creators of Arizona State’s Library Minute have shared their tips and tricks for video creation. In fact, there’s an entire Pinterest board of library marketing videos.

But the lesson of The Research Games for other libraries is not only that film-making is not as out of reach as some may have thought, it is broader: “Do asset mapping, see what you have in your community and what your community does well, and capitalize on that,” Engle advises. She cites as an example a demo she saw at an ACRL conference on a library video game, produced by a campus with an academic program for video game creation.

In the meantime, The Research Games is probably not the last film you’ll see out of Texas A&M’s libraries. Engle deliberately left dates out of the movie so she could use it for at least a couple more years. However, she said, “Now that we’ve done one we have a sense of what works. We have ideas for improvement already. We have talked about [Hunger Games sequel] Catching Fire.”

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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